' ' Cinema Romantico: Avatar

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


There is a sequence in James Cameron's long awaited "Avatar" I want to tell you about, and don't worry because it will not reveal anything of great significance. We are on the lush planet of Pandora, populated by a people known as the Na'vi, blue skinned, golden eyed, ten or so feet tall, where our hero, a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), has come and taken a Na'vi as an avatar. (The term Avatar is taken from Hinduism, as in the incarnation of a Hindu deity, though in modern technological terms it is a virtual object meant to represent its user. In this case, Jake Sully.) For reasons both scientic and militaristic, Jake forges his way into the suspicious Na'vi community who reluctantly agree to indoctrinate him in their ways, teaching him to become a Na'vi warrior. But to do so he must pass a particular test, find and ride a pterodactyl-like banshee, except to do that they must - as Jake's dry voiceover tells us - "go where the banshees are." That is, up, up, up, and up. Up into the sky, through the planet's spectacular floating mountains, further and further, where they will find a nesting place, or something, of these banshees and Jake will find one, scrap with it, climb aboard it, and soar with it, high above the Pandora forests. And the movie soars, too. It is beautiful, rousing stuff, and it gave me two thoughts.

One, this sequence simply could have not existed without the special effects, which is to say the effects are in service of the story. Wait, can I repeat that? With italics? The effects are in service of the story. My, what a concept.

Two, James Cameron has earned a reputation (not unfair) for bravado, for ego, for tyranny on movie sets, but you know what else he is? A sensualist. Sequences like this prove it. He's also something else, something we've known for a long, long time and that "Avatar" reproves. The sequence I just described ends with Jake saying in voiceover: "I've never liked horses. But I was born for this." James Cameron is a born filmmaker.

"Avatar", in the works for 12 years, and more than that, is a film with 3D effects (I saw the film in 3D and I recommend you do too) that are expected to revolutionize the film industry. This, I will admit, is not my area of expertise. The effects certainly seemed fantastic and, again, so much of what Cameron does here could not have taken place without them but I'm still old school and I will always prefer action movies where all things real win the day. It's how I'm built. Even so, there is so much of "Avatar" that I watched in wonder and in awe.

The story is as old as the hills and I happen to think there is not one damn thing wrong with that. The U.S. Military has come to Pandora in the year 2154 to harbor a priceless entity titled Unobtainium. Of course, the Na'vi and their blissful environmentalist tendencies stand in their way, much to the chagrin of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who is intent on unleashing a "shock and awe" campaign to drive out the Na'vi from their home to have at the mineral they need. He enlists Jake Sully and his avatar in the cause to gain inside info that can be used in an attack which, of course, makes Doctor Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist conducting this avatar research with the noblest of intentions, to be skeptical of Sully, a man with no avatar training whatsoever. But the more Jake becomes ingrained in the Na'vi culture, the more he accepts it, and the more disinclined he becomes to assist the military, especially once he falls for the Na'vi warrior who is made his, shall we say, mentor - Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Does she fall for him? Did you really just ask that question?

Star cross'd lovers of Panodra, one might say.

Certainly the three act structure is predictable. The villains, particularly Col. Quaritch, are ridiculous and one dimensional. A cache of complexity in characters will not be found. Some of the dialogue is even worse than what you heard in "Titanic". But then I'm not 100% naive. When you have $300 million on the line (or however much "Avatar" cost) you have to be judicious and give audiences material that is mostly easy on the moviewatching digestive tract and, anyway, Cameron can still tell a story. You betcha he can. He remains as good as anyone at pacing action scenes and, most especially, he is unafraid to linger where so many directors are. For instance, the jellyfish-esque creatures that hover in the Pandoran air and can signal good or bad intentions. (I'd also like to add that Michelle Rodriguez is featured here in a bit part as a good intentioned, tough talking marine and I truly hope she and Cameron work together again in the future. They are kindred spirits. Rodriguez is a bad ass and no one writes female bad asses like Cameron.)

Without question there is a ham-handed green message to the film but I, for one, saw something else. Last week on Salon Matt Zoller Seitz offered a rather compelling argument for Michael Bay being the movie director of the decade. It made me want to throw up because, hey, it was kinda accurate.

Bay's "landscape," he writes, is "dominated by mass-produced products, images and notions -- many of them militaristic and/or materialistic in nature, all consciously or subconsciously reinforcing our bone-deep faith in bigger-newer-shinier-cooler-faster and lead-follow-or-get-out-of-the-way. This mentality -- a distinctively American hybrid of latent fascism and ingrained consumerism -- is the air we breathe, the blood that flows through our veins. It's our true national religion."

He goes on to say that Bay "digs gadgets, thinks guns are awesome and never saw a skyline he didn't want to blow up. And he looooves a man in a uniform: a deep-core driller's jumpsuit, a Marine's dress blues or a SWAT team member's shiny black body armor -- he doesn't care what the uniform's owner is doing as long as there are photogenic flames or sparks behind him as he does it."

Let us consider Col. Quaritch a bit more. A man in uniform hell-bent (follow-or-get-out-of-my-way) on gaining a certain piece of material of great value and nothing else. Damn the consequences! He stands high above the picturesque forest of a peaceful planet in a souped-up spaceship desiring nothing more than to blow that damned forest up. He may as well have a bullhorn, a ballcap and a director's chair in the cockpit as he barks orders. This is the blood that runs through his veins. Hell, there is even an epic showdown between a Na'vi warrior and Col. Quaritch tucked away inside an eerily Transformers-esque robot. Hmmmmmm....

Oh, I'm most likely reading too much into it. I don't care. What filmmaker thinks he can completely control the way audiences interpret his or her work? Seitz also says "Bay never respects the rhythmic integrity of any image." Ya think? Cameron does. I haven't the foggiest notion whether this 3D wizardry will change cinema forever. But if you are going to use it, give us some time to appreciate it, to revel in it. "Avatar" is by no means a masterpiece but it's got something a Michael Bay blockbuster - and so many other blockbusters - don't and never will.

Soul, baby.


Wretched Genius said...

I really hope they don't get around to remaking Aliens anytime soon, but if they do, Michelle Rodriguez is the only person who could play Vasquez. And after watching Avatar, I'd also cast Giovanni Ribisi as Burke (the Paul Reiser character). And Sam Worthington as Hicks.

Dibs! I'm remaking Aliens.

Nick Prigge said...

But what about Hudson? Who would play Hudson? Is there such a thing as a Young Bill Paxton?